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In the introduction the author explains that most players below Master level spend a majority of their study time looking at chess openings, but achieve little benefit, with the following reasons being cited: changing openings too often, rote learning at the expense of understanding, and simply not studying in the right way. The author also explains that, in his 30s with his rating around 2250, he still had a weak or virtually no opening repertoire at all! In Moscow, his first experienced chess trainer asked him to write out his whole opening repertoire - but he couldn't do it. Under the guidance of his trainer he finally set about developing a proper cohesive repertoire; his confidence and results improved significantly. In this book he passes on his insights and experience.
The book is divided into 9 chapters. Most of the chapters have a "Conclusions" section which has a useful summary of the main points. I think this works very well and is an excellent feature of the book. Starting with "The Keys to Successful Opening Play". This first chapter deals with some fundamental questions about openings that all club players would benefit from rethinking. For example, one which I thought was particularly pertinent: all normal main-line openings are perfectly sound, and there is no reason for preferring one opening over another - except that it should suit the playing style and tastes of the player.
My own experience of building my opening repertoire proved to be quite frustrating at times and took a serious effort to rebuild it. I recently changed most of my opening repertoire after returning to chess after an 18 month break. In the end I gave preference to openings that I enjoyed playing (even though I don't have time to study all of them seriously), rather than openings which were much less theorical but less interesting. After reading this book and after experimenting with some new openings, e.g. Caro Kann and Slav (both which were completely new to me) I discovered that I actually enjoyed playing in dynamic positions e.g. KID, now I wouldn't be seen dead playing the Caro or Slav! There is some very good practical advice in this chapter for any player struggling to form an opening repertoire, in the midst of studying new openings, or who may have some doubts about the openings they have selected.
The second chapter focuses on variety in the openings and suggests the player implement a different strategy depending on his main aims, e.g. weekend and club players would do best to stick to a narrow range of openings, while juniors or more talented players would benefit more from a broader repertoire in order to improve their all-round positional understanding (a restricted repertoire may actually do some harm). Giddins then moves on to "Stylistics", which for me was one of the most interesting sections of the book. It is well known that a player should always select openings that are in accordance with his playing style because then he should achieve his best results. But this chapter argues that it is not easy to define what your style is, and one must be very careful when considering one's style. He recommends analysing your games properly, especially lost games because these games tell you far more about your strengths and weaknesses than your wins. There is a summary of openings recommended for positional and tactical players, using famous players as examples. I think players who are looking for guidance on building a repertoire would benefit more from the first few chapters of the book; the second half of the book just really deals with developing and maintaining the repertoire.
The chapters on "Main Roads or Side-Streets?", "Universalities", "Move-Orders and Transpositions" and "Use and Abuse of Computers" give more advice on selecting openings and maintaining them. The final chapter looks at the repertoires of very strong players such as Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov, Framnik, Adams, Hebden, and others. I thought this was another nice touch and will be useful to many club players who like to model their openings on that of a GM, and understand how a GM's repertoire fits together.
The penultimate chapter is quite humourously named: "Infidelity and Divorce". We've all been there at some stage: a string of bad results leads to nagging doubts about your pet opening. I know a lot of players, myself included, who are too quick to throw away years of experience with a particular opening because of poor results. This chapter should be read and re-read by those players who find it difficult to settle on any opening!
Having read this book from cover to cover, I would recommend it to all club players. This book could help improving players to unlock their true chess strength by helping them to find an opening repertoire which best suits their needs. It contains a wealth of advice for players of all levels, especially intermediate players (e.g. 150BCF) like myself who are looking to fine-tune their opening repertoire.
Steve Giddens introduces these possible familiar themes in the books introduction:
- Most of us blame the opening for our defeat, unjustifiably
- We never say, "If only I knew endgames better" or "If I could play fixed-pawn games better."
- We resign to saying, "It's that opening, I always lose with it. I'll have to give it up."
- Players under master strength spend a disproportionate time on studying openings.
- We gain very little from this time wasted, due to constant switching around of openings, rote memorization w/o understanding, trusting authority rather than our own ideas, etc.
- Too few players understand HOW to learn an opening and develop a repertoire.
- Due to spending too much time on the opening, we seriously neglect the other areas.
- When we lose, we usually blame the openings, oblivious to the fact that we lost because of our endgame, etc., then spend yet MORE time on another opening
- This book will help you develop an opening repertoire. It won't guarantee wins, but will set you down the correct path, and help you see the true reason for losses, which is rarely the opening.
The book then covers the following:
How building a repertoire allows a player to become very familiar in certain positions, but can result in a limited view on the game, being only proficient with certain pawn structures, etc. An prime example being Fischer, who played the Najdorf and KID almost exclusively. But how today, with the incredible ease of accessing games through computer databases, that masters can 'bookup' against players with fixed systems. This can happen at your local clubs, as well.
How growing pains exist in learning a new opening, and how it can take months or years to get comfortable with it. Example games are given when grandmasters have deviated from their familiar starting grounds only to show their lack of experience with their new opening show through in the middlegame (ie - Ulhmann, a French Defense player, starting out with the Caro-Kahn...Karpov, starting with a Sicilian Defense, etc.)
How a player shouldn't be concerned with memorizing the latest theory on move 13 of the QGD. A game of Nigel Short's (playing White) introduces a novelty in an opening where previous White tries resulted in difficulties. Nigel plays a move after assessing the position and following his plan. "I have a terrible memory," he explained, assuring the reader even more how great moves are made by understanding the position, and not through memorization or playing what's in vogue.
Whether to play 'Main line' or 'Side variations'. Whether to play offbeat opening or classical ones. Also, a chapter covering reverse openings (ie - King's Indian Attack, etc.), with a move in hand are discussed. He discusses the misconception of these openings - "If the King's Indian is good with Black, it must be fantastic with White." Yet, he give much explanation that these openings tend to lack the 'oomph', and that the extra move in hand, surprisingly, tends to be a disadvantage.
How a player should have his game assessed to determine his style and what openings he should consider playing.
When studying an opening, to beware of transpositions into lines you may be unprepared for (ie - Having mastered the Queen's Gambit, Exchanged variation and Queen's Indian, your opponent tricks you with 1. d4 e6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 d5!, and now you're in lines where your prepared Exchange Variation loses it's punch as Nc3 hasn't been played.
The book at the end covers a dozen or so players and their repertoire, and each chapter's main theme is supported by at least a few example games. The book itself is also made of good quality paper and should last for quite a while.
The book is an interesting read, with quite a few games backing up all of the book's major points. As mentioned, it isn't a book you go over in preparation for a tournament, but acts as more of a guide for those who have become lost in the sea of opening theory and need a little wake-up call. This book is not at all a must-have book, and if you're under expert, you shouldn't be concerned so much with booking up as you should be other parts of the game, as it's returns are diminished. But for those who have become addicted to opening theory (you know who you are), or if you're a strong player who has yet to developed a proper repertoire and isn't sure where to start, this book may be a decent guide.